This September is World Alzheimer’s Month™, and “Remember Me” is this year’s theme. People are encouraged to identify the signs of dementia, remember people living with it, and also those who have died.
In Nigeria, folktales usually inform most childhood visions about ageing. At least they informed mine. National literature present the elderly as very wise and revered. They are loved by all, and they make all the important decisions. So, when in reality, old age does not equal this expected wisdom, but rather includes any ‘unusual’ behaviour; a cocktail of diagnosis is served – “madness”, “witchcraft”, “spiritual problems” and “curses”.
Nowadays, with blurred lines separating cultural beliefs and religion, people are making up their own meanings about things they don’t understand. Hence, in a society where there is little understanding of dementia, one can only imagine the interpretations of the misinformed masses. The elderly (especially women), living with dementia, are vilified for literally breathing. They are dismissed as witches, “demented”, “senile” “zombies” and “lunatics”. For some, it spells death by mob action.
Here are some stories to show that (some details have been changed to protect the victims and their families). Let’s Remember…
Bisi: Beaten, stabbed and burnt on the streets by a mob. She was found wandering and was accused of being a witch, who fell from the sky at night. She answered “yes” to the question “are you a witch?” She couldn’t remember who she was.
Her loved ones remember that: Bisi was a 90 year old loved mother, grandmother, great grandma, former teacher, retired librarian. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, she sometimes wandered around. Her family kept a close eye on her, but one night, she let herself out and no one saw her alive again.
Nneka: Battered, stabbed and burnt by a mob. People saw her wandering the streets looking confused. They accused her of being a witch. When the mob gathered and heard her speak with a British accent, they concluded that she was a witch who flew from England to kill people, and got lost on her way back.
Her loved ones remember Nneka as: a 70 year old loved mother of four. Grandmother. A retired civil servant. She lived in England most of her life. She fostered children and dedicated her life to helping others. She returned to Nigeria to enjoy her retirement. Her behaviour changed, she became aggressive towards people. This was out of character, and she started losing her memory. She couldn’t have conversations with people anymore. She was later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She sometimes wandered round the house for hours. She left the house one day, and was killed on the streets.
Omo: Locked up in a room (“for her own safety”); and isolated for the past 12 months. She is a 65 year old mother and grandmother. Most people remember Omo as a successful baker until she was diagnosed with vascular dementia. She lives with her daughter who cares for her. She is not allowed out of the room. Her daughter is too embarrassed to allow others see her.
Felicia: 45 years old. Recently suffered a series stroke and was diagnosed with dementia. She was abandoned on the streets of a nearby town because she was an embarrassment to her family. Anecdotes claim that she was last seen with chains around her ankles.
My thoughts & Science…
In the above cases, dementia was a common factor. Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms that may cause loss of memory, difficulties with language, thinking and problem solving. It happens when the brain is damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and series of strokes. It is progressive. It changes people’s personalities and affects their social lives. It can happen to anyone. A symptom of dementia is disorientation of time and space, which explains why Bisi and Nneka couldn’t find their ways home. Their memory loss meant they couldn’t remember who they were anymore. The stigmatisation and misconception about dementia means that Omo and Felicia are viewed as sources of shame to their families. Omo is a prisoner in her own home, Felicia is likely to die on the streets. There are different types of dementia and they include: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy bodies and fronto-temporal dementia.
Myths and Beliefs
A common myth is that, in old age, one will develop a disease that causes dementia. This is not true, as people can live and age without having any form of dementia. I recently overheard someone say that she was surprised, that an 89 year old woman still “had all her senses intact.” Others believe that it’s a disease for the elderly. This belief is not based on evidence as seen in Felicia’s case (45 years). Although dementia is usually diagnosed in people 65 years and over, there is an increase in young people being diagnosed with dementia. Some say it doesn’t happen to Africans. Lies! Dementia can affect people from all ethnicities. (Source of the science bits)
… the person behind the disease. In Bisi and Nneka’s cases, policemen stood and watched the mob kill them. Please read about dementia. Spread the word. Be an advocate for vulnerable elderly persons. If you are caring for someone with dementia, it’s ok to stand tall and be seen with them. We may be begging to be Remembered someday.
Some good news
Whilst researching for this piece, I found people and organisations who are championing dementia awareness and care in Nigeria. They include:
Visit: http://dementianigeria.com for information on dementia care in Nigeria
The Michelle Group Trust, (Dementia Namibia) are self aclaimed “dementia activists” and are fearless in overcoming barriers in their strive to create better awareness of dementia in Nigeria and Africa as a whole. Visit their website on https://alzheimersdementianamibia.wordpress.com/about/ and follow them on Facebook: Dementia Namibia
Images Credits: Dementia Care Berkshire (1) The Michelle Trust Group Trust (2)